Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions is an oft repeated ‘boss-ism’. In the last four articles, I’ve set out significant problems facing New Zealand’s Defence Reserve Force. These are by no means exhaustive. You’ll have to wait for the book to come out to read everything I’ve assembled on the subject over 30 years. In this article, I will outline what I believe to be essential steps to remedying the parlous state of the Reserve.
Another less-known one-liner which is relevant here is “if you control the language – you control the debate.” I raised the thought in an earlier piece that the term “Regular Force (RF)” should be done away with. Similarly, I believe the terms “Reserve (Res)”, “Territorial (TF)”, “Volunteer”, “Militia”, and so on should be consigned to history. The logic is simple. All terms that define legal status as Defence Force personnel are redundant. They serve only to divide and exclude. The only information relevant to a modern “total defence workforce” is Mode of Service i.e is the person working full-time or part-time? Are they on an open-ended or fixed term contract? What trade skills can they be employed in and what is their current employment mode? This way of thinking means that the full-time storeman who becomes a rifleman is still seen as both. The part time rifleman who is a dentist is seen as both. It covers both the RF doing 30 hours a week and the Reservist on a “STRFE” (Short Term Regular Force Engagement).
If there is one mistake consistently made by decision-makers, it is a failure to understand the tribal nature of part-time forces. Ironic when so much effort is being put into bi-culturalism within NZDF. By tribal, I’m not only referring to regiments, corps and units. It runs much deeper. A section or platoon in a small town like Levin is very different to one based on Massey University. And yet, I had both of those in a rifle company that operated successfully, simply by letting them be themselves. Full-timers regularly move between camps and units. Job advancement and family considerations such as schools and working spouses supercede tribalism for most of them.
This tribalism used to be a strength but corporatisation of the Defence Force has ruined it and every restructure – designed to reverse the damage – makes it worse. As an example, centralised recruiting has caused significant drag on the inflow of new recruits. Prior to this, part-timers recruited their own. Any officer could attest a soldier. Designated personnel could administer the entry tests. Now, keen prospects wait months for the ‘batch-processing’ 9-5ers to process their online applications. It takes one day to enlist a soldier. They express an interest and are given the entry tests for literacy, numeracy etc. They are attested and given partly worn serviceable uniforms and other basic kit. Their enlistment is made subject to passing a medical examination and Police records check. If they fail either, their time in the force is over. In the meantime, they train locally under supervision (buddy system). If the NZDF could strike an arrangement with Police prioritising the vetting of recruits that would take another day. A local doctor doing the medical is day three. Three-day recruitment is not only possible but essential for capturing the spark of interest when it first presents. I know of many aspiring soldiers who simply gave up after months of inaction from the centralised recruiting system.
The argument that society has changed and people don’t want to volunteer any more is both true and irrelevant when you consider the volunteer strength of the Fire Service. They stand up a force of 11,600 with no pay, minimal entry requirement and training as well as frequent disruption for their employer. I’ve spent a lot of time looking into this and it comes down to simple principles that contain solutions for the Defence Force:
- Local Fire Brigades recruit their own and most training is local.
- They have a real operational role.
- They are a cohesive extended family. Frequent family gatherings, BBQs and fun for the kids. Often, you can find multiple generations serving in the same Brigade or a family tradition of service.
- They command themselves and have their own resources.
I discovered early on that the local fire brigade was our major competition for recruits and initiated a discussion to ‘share’ volunteers. This can only work where local commanders each have the same conversation.
Former Associate Defence Minister, Hon Heather Roy, was delegated responsibility for the Reserve Force from 2008 to 2010. A serving part-time field engineer herself, she was well placed to comment on what needed to change. In many speeches, this was summarised as:
Resources are finite in any country and the Defence Force is expensive to run. However, the part-time force can never get ahead when full-timers are able to freeze recruitment and training, reallocate money, withdraw cadre staff etc in order to offset poor management elsewhere. I believe that the money has to be separated at the highest level with a separate Reserve Force allocation in the budget. We should return to having a separate Minister, Associate Minister or Parliamentary Under-Secretary responsible for Reserves as our allies do.
Now we come to a major challenge – finding a real operational role at a local level. This does not mean giving part-timers all the jobs that the full-timers don’t want. Neither does it involve part-time versions of full-time roles across the board. There are a few (I estimate between 10% and 20%) of part-timers who will wish to be fully integrated into a full-time unit. The culture of full-time units is generally not Reserve-friendly so they have to be particularly strong personalities to thrive. The most likely success will come with ex full-timers serving in those part-time roles. The vast majority will be split between wanting to keep a broad range of deployment options open (general service skills) versus specialising in a niche skill (such as cyber, UAVs, bridging, medical or flying instructor). Local elements, if asked, can quickly identify what they could be best at and what will reliably get people along to training. We need to think about the skills needed in tomorrow’s operational environment.
The ‘gig’ economy is affecting the Defence Force like any other employer that has long lead-in training time. The civil-military bond is weakening and the part-time force can be a key driver in reversing that trend. It needs to be flexible, responsive – especially in recruitment – and much larger. It must offer something unique to catch the attention of new generations and different ethnic groups. It has to have the employer relationship finely tuned. In an earlier work (Commanding Kiwis, 1998), I called this a policy of “Coordinated Self-Interest”. That means establishing ‘what’s in it for me?’ as a touchstone for all stakeholders and shaping policy accordingly. All our allies have moved to increase the size of their part-time force to take account of these and other trends.
One initiative that fits this bill is that of Voluntary National Service. VNS is a form of quid pro quo where either full-time or part-time service in designated arms of State might be rewarded (in addition to pay, training and experience) with student loan repayment or similar. It was part of the ACT Party International Relations and National Security Policy 2008 for the general election but has become lost like the party it once belonged to. Nonetheless, there are many ideas in the policy that others could pick up and run with.
What is long overdue is an association such as the Police have. By this, I do not mean a union but a strong separate advocacy group that can undertake research and speak publicly where service personnel cannot. It is also the way that the current unconscionable arrangement of the Chief of Defence Force being both employer and employee advocate can be solved.
War is Chaos. That’s why the Reserve is particularly good at war. They practice chaos on a daily basis!
*An NCO once told his soldiers to “dismantle their rifles, give them a good clean and remantle them.” It seems appropriate, given that the words reorganisation, restructure, rebalance, regionalisation and reintegration have already been applied to the part-time force, that we might give ‘remantling’ a try.
However, if the politicians and senior commanders of the NZDF today aren’t interested in remantling, I can only try to buy the part-time force some time for those personalities to move on. The late Anthony Bourdain, in describing how to cook the perfect steak, summed up my view “Don’t F#@^ing Touch It! Let it rest.”
This is the final part of the current series on NZ’s Reserve Forces. You can read earlier parts by following these links:
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